Radio Interview with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Mullen with Jerry Bohnen of KTOK, Oklahoma City, OK
BOHNEN: … It’s always a surprise to people that to find a naval wing here, but people wonder. What about the future of this continued duty in Oklahoma?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, as far as I know. I mean basically the duty, and I’m like you, I’ve landed in Tinker before. I was coming from a cross country hop, oh, probably ten years ago, and landed there and just started asking questions of the people that met me, and was told there were over a thousand Sailors that were at Tinker. It’s a really critical wing and critical capability for us and they are doing. There’s no plan at all in the works to move the squadron, and they are doing great work. I’ve run into Sailors in my travels all over the world who have been stationed at Tinker and in cases who are stationed at Tinker, and they absolutely love the duty, they love the location, and they love the people.
BOHNEN: Admiral you told Congress, and I know you repeated this in an interview last spring where you talked about the size of the Navy, particularly the ships, you think 281 is small. You prefer something around 313. So where are you? Where is the Navy in progressing towards that goal?
ADM. MULLEN: I’ve been here just over a year. I submitted to Congress a 30-year shipbuilding plan that has a target of 313 ships. We’ve got 280 actually in the Navy today. We’ve come down from well over 300 in recent years, and it’s really important for us as a maritime nation with, and who has always had a strong Navy to reverse that trend. We were on a trend that took us down in some estimates as low as 200 ships. We cannot do the nation’s bidding, particularly in the world we’re living in, with a Navy that’s that small. So I’ve got a plan to do that.
Congress over the last year was very supportive of that plan. So we’re headed in the right direction creating stability, partnerships with industry who builds these things, and also with Congress who needs to clearly support what we’re doing and they have so. We’re heading in the right direction. It’s a mix of both capabilities we need for the future, as well as numbers of ships. So I’m optimistic at this point, but this is a long-term priority for me to make sure we get it right.
Jerry: Are you moving or is the Navy moving too slowly, or would you like to obviously see it move faster toward this goal?
ADM. MULLEN: I’d like to move it towards this goal as rapidly as possible. Part of my responsibility here is to be a good steward of the nation’s treasury and to make sure we do this and reduce costs, and get the best value out to sea as quickly as possible. So we are. We’re moving as rapidly as we can right now. I certainly would like to accelerate it if I can, but that takes a significant amount of investment.
BOHNEN: We’re not getting political here and not asking you take sides, do you feel comfortable with the current Congress in giving you this approval? Do you worry if there’s a change in the leadership?
ADM. MULLEN: Actually, in the job that I’m in, I’ve got obviously responsibilities which are for the nation, and I work hard on both sides of the aisle for support. I’ve been supported -- and I’ve worked these kinds of issues over a number of years -- but in particular over this last year, I’ve had Democrats and Republicans, junior and senior, be incredibly supportive of the plan that I’ve put over there. I would expect that would continue no matter what happens in the upcoming elections.
BOHNEN: Let me ask you about the Navy retention of junior officers. Is there a problem? Because I know some of the other military branches have had it difficult, in particularly the Army, of keeping its young captains and lieutenants and even some majors?
ADM. MULLEN: Sure. That’s always been a focus for me over many, many years and our retention of our junior officers right now in our major communities, aviation, submarines and ships, is exceptionally good. I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take them for granted and their service. We focus on this all time. Equally important is the focus on the families, the spouses of all the people who are in the Navy, and this area, in particular, because I really believe on both the enlisted side and the officer side -- and our enlisted retention is also exceptionally high right now -- that Sailors make decisions about staying in the Navy as a family. They may join as an individual, but retaining a family is really critical. So I’m very pleased with the numbers, but I’m also very pleased with the quality of the people who are staying and the quality of the people that we have in the Navy today.
BOHNEN: At one point the war in Iraq and Afghanistan affected some of the recruiting of the branches. Has that turned around significantly?
ADM. MULLEN: We’ve been able to recruit to the levels that we required over the last five plus years. That’s at the high level. We clearly have some challenges. We’ve got some challenges on the reserve side. We’ve put in place and we’ve made some changes to focus more specifically on some of the reserves. Our reserves number some 70,000 in the Navy and they are from all over this country, and they are exceptional people who have really stood up to the challenge in a post 911 world. So I do have some specific areas that are of concern to me, Special Forces where our SEALs are, our divers, our EOD explosive ordnance personnel, and we’re really focusing on getting that right. But by and large, our recruiting has been exceptional, and people are staying in the Navy at a record rate.
BOHNEN: You’re not getting enough of people you think to be Special Forces, the SEALS, the divers and like that?
ADM. MULLEN: That’s the rate, or those are the skills, that are certainly leading out the edge in this long War on Terror. We are all… I mean we’re struggling a little bit with the recruiting side of them. At the same time we’re expanding the requirement. So we’re growing the number requirement and this is a high skill. We need to bring in people and not change the standard whatsoever. And one of the things we’ve found, Jerry, is there’s just some process stuff that we needed to improve inside the Navy to increase those numbers. In the trends, were moving in that direction, it’s just gonna take us a while.
BOHNEN: You know on a personal note here, my son spent a year in Iraq. He was in 1st Cav…
ADM. MULLEN: Oh, was he? Good for him.
ADM. MULLEN: Good for him.
BOHNEN: Captain, and trained the Iraqi National Guardsmen…
ADM. MULLEN: Right.
BOHNEN: …in the nasty area of Baghdad.
ADM. MULLEN: Right.
BOHNEN: The boys had the SEALs coming in to get, what I always called time on trigger with him…
ADM. MULLEN: Right.
BOHNEN: …because of the kind of combat that they did…
ADM. MULLEN: Sure.
BOHNEN: It brings me up to the War in Iraq. How much does this… How much of a day do you devote to items or subject matter directly related to the War in Iraq?
ADM. MULLEN: I’ll spend probably 20 percent of my time roughly on that. We’ve talked about the Navy, and in addition to peoples’ views of what the Navy has done historically. Our roles and missions are changing. I’ve got over 4,000 Sailors on the ground in Iraq. You’ve mentioned the SEALs, but they are security personnel; they are explosives personnel; they are electronics personnel; they are security [personnel] there. They provide capabilities -- docs, corpsmen, nurses -- and that number has grown, and will probably continue to grow slightly in the near future. I’ve got over 11,000 Sailors on the ground in the Central Command AOR, Afghanistan, Horn of Africa, and Iraq. Thousands more at sea and the world has changed in the threats, the counter drugs, piracy, maritime security for oil platforms off Iraq, specifically.
All of those things are -- our missions are changing. So I’m invested in this as an institution and as a leader. So I spend a fair amount of my time looking at what’s going on there. How can Navy forces, in particular, continue to try to support the mission there, and also relieve some of the stress that’s on our ground forces who clearly have been pressed the hardest since Operation Iraqi Freedom started?
BOHNEN: Why will there be a slight increase in the coming future?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, we are looking for a way. I look at this as a national mission, not an Army mission or a Marine Corps mission. So we’re constantly looking for ways to relieve the pressure, if you will, on the ground forces whose rotations have been very, very pressing since this started. This would not be tied to the -- just the overall discussion about the number of troops in Iraq. It’s just that as I look at what the Navy can do, I would expect it to go up from about 4,300 to somewhat above that, although not dramatically.
BOHNEN: And what would a timetable be on that?
ADM. MULLEN: It’s not… It’s really tied to the overall commitment in Iraq. Over the next year or so as I look at it, that’s really what I’m talking about, and I can foresee probably the next, at the current level of commitment, but I can look out at about 12 or possibly 18 months in terms of what I’ll have to do to help support the mission.
BOHNEN: Listening to the national growing national debate,…
ADM. MULLEN: Sure.
BOHNEN: …as we grow ever so closer to the elections, the debate on Iraq’s war there, how does that affect you? Does it bother you? Does it concern you that maybe sometimes the wrong things are being said, viewpoints and things like that?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think a great strength of this country is that we have the freedoms to express those opinions and certainly conduct those debates. That this is a huge issue in the upcoming elections is no surprise to me. When I travel to the theater, when I go to Iraq and talk to Sailors and Marines in particular and Soldiers and Airmen, but mostly Sailors and Marines, the one question they ask me is are the American people still in support of us in uniform? It’s a very easy answer for me because in my travels in the country that the resounding response to that is from the American people is absolutely. Then they move on. They’ve got their mission. They know what they’re supposed to do and they leave the politics to the politicians. That’s been very consistent over the last couple of years when I’ve been in and out of there, and all the feedback I get is still that. So that’s a really important piece for our people, for all our people in uniform to know that the American people are behind them.
BOHNEN: Without pointing fingers or anything, are there things that you would have liked to have seen and particularly from the Navy’s viewpoint, and let’s say in the past two years and how things could have been changed or handled better?
ADM. MULLEN: Well, I’m not one to spend a lot of time in hindsight, Jerry, on what we could have done. I think it’s really important that I spend a fair amount of my time now looking at where we are and looking at we need to do to move ahead. I think that’s really important. There’s clearly a lot of discussion coming up, with the elections coming up about views on what we should’ve done or could’ve done or whether mistakes were made or not. Again, I don’t get into that discussion very much. It’s really where we are and how we take care of our mission. It isn’t just a military mission. So much of the future of Iraq is dependant on the Iraqi people and the government that’s there, and their need to exert the kind of both influence and capability in order to move ahead and reduce the level of violence, and put them in a position for a secure future.
BOHNEN: I don’t think there is any question that most Americans would agree with you on that.
ADM. MULLEN: Right.
BOHNEN: It’s do we have the obligation to tell the Iraqi government to set a timetable, to put demands upon them like that?
ADM. MULLEN: I think we have the obligation to make it very clear to the Iraqi government and to the Iraqi people that there are requirements for them to move ahead. I’m not gonna get into a discussion whether there should be an exact timetable or timeline. I think the way that our government is approaching it now where it has set benchmarks to which certainly the Prime Minister seems to have responded that he understands that and needs to meet those is reasonable, but I’m not really in the middle of that discussion from our government’s standpoint. Clearly, it does focus on the need for the Iraqi government to make some significant progress so that we can move ahead in this. Then at some point, obviously, when the time is right, reduce the commitment of both coalition forces and our own.
BOHNEN: Final question here, Admiral. Depending on how you define the word progress, is progress, is your opinion being made there?
ADM. MULLEN: I’m going back over Christmas, Jerry, and I’ll be better equipped to answer that by being on the ground and spending some time there specifically. I think as I listen to General Casey, for instance, and General Abizaid, and they talk about progress in certain parts of the country, there really is progress being made. There is, just listening to him yesterday, obviously there continues to be concern on the level of violence, particularly in the Baghdad area. That seems to be the center of gravity right now for the discussion in terms of progress we need to make, and again in combination of certainly us and support, but the Iraqi government must figure out a way to resolve it.
BOHNEN: Admiral Mullen, it has been a pleasure to talk with you. I appreciate your time today.
ADM. MULLEN: Thank you Jerry. I very much look forward to getting out to Oklahoma this weekend and spending time with great people on our birthday.
BOHNEN: Excellent. Thank you again, sir.